State of one of the Corsairs of St. Malo

The Corsairs of Saint-Malo: Network Organization of a Merchant Elite Under the Ancien Régime. Quite the intimidating title. But, if you’re into French history, privateers, or economic history, don’t let it scare you away – this book is worth the read. 

Despite the admittedly dense nature of some parts of this book, its author, Henning Hillman, wraps his sociological discussions up in fascinating stories of French merchants navigating (pun unintended) the murky waters of trade and privateering in times of war. Henning’s exceptional story telling ability, mixed with his insightful historical sociology, makes for a captivating academic study.

Getting to Know the Corsairs of Saint-Malo

So what, or, rather who, exactly, were the corsairs of Saint-Malo? As Henning does a marvelous job of explaining, the corsairs were French privateers, or, essentially, legal pirates given permission by the French crown to take and loot ships of enemy kingdoms during times of war. 

Though we don’t normally think of pirates as master financiers, these privateering expeditions (or course, in French) took quite a bit of capital to get off the ground. Enter the armateurs. The money behind the corsairs, the armateurs typically came from Breton or Norman merchant families or less than well-off nobility; occasionally, too, an Italian or Irish merchant would find his way to Saint-Malo and set up shop. 

Getting Rich off of War

As Hillman demonstrates, Saint-Malo, situated perfectly on the Breton coast, was a traditional power-house of French Atlantic trade. While Malouin merchants typically made their money investing in fishing off of Newfoundland, the burgeoning trans-Atantic slave trade, or swapping wares with the Spanish in Cadiz (plus, a few illicit trips to Spanish ports in Peru), the outbreak of war offered new opportunities. And, during the period covered in the book, 1681-1792, there were plenty of wars to go around. 

For the already wealthy merchants, the course was a chance to diversify their portfolio. For others, it offered a decent investment and, perhaps, the ability to move up in the world. As shown by Hillman, these ventures could be as close to home as the coast of the British Isles during one of France’s many wars with England, or as far flung as the Caribbean Sea or Indian Ocean, as world-wide empires sought to steal the plunder of other world-wide empires. Those courses that didn’t take Malouins sailors too far from the Breton coast were the safer, cheaper investment, while those that took ships half a world away were quite risky, though they yielded the highest return. 

Through dynastic clashes like the War of Austrian Succession and the War of Spanish Succession to the history altering revolutions in America and France, several generations of Malouin armateurs made their fortunes outfitting vessels for the course

What’s the Point of The Corsairs of Saint-Malo?

As a work of historical sociology, The Corsairs of Saint-Malo explores the idea that these courses acted as a linchpin for the entire merchant network of Saint-Malo. Through the book, Hillman does a masterful job of presenting quantifiable, empirically gathered evidence to support the thesis that the course acted as a mediating force in the Saint-Malo economy, connecting people throughout the city, whether they knew it or not. 

As Hillman puts it, the course “was the one enterprise that attracted interested parties from all corners of the local merchant elite. Hence, at the macrostructure of organizational networks in this time and place, it was the course that prompted cohesion, whereas its absence led to fragmentation.” (14)

So, when peace time came, and there was not more privateering to be had, the network of merchants, whose connection to one-another bolstered the economic structure of Saint-Malo, began to crumble.

Interesting Dr. Hillman, very interesting. 

Final Verdict

While I’m not familiar enough with the economic history of the French Atlantic to comment on this book’s place in the literature, I can definitely recommend adding it to your reading list. Hillman offers a captivating sociological take on over 100 years of conflict, trade, and personal fortune with this enjoyable study. 

If you want to check it out for yourself, head over to Columbia University Press

Note: I was not paid or reimbursed in any way by Columbia University Press for this review; all thoughts are my own.

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Atlantic World History, History Blog